Sunday, February 7, 2010

Dog (and Cat) Breath: You Really CAN Brush Your Pet's Teeth

"Brush my dog's teeth! Are you kidding?!"

I was examining Taffy, a 12-year-old poodle. She had terrible plaque and tartar on her teeth and her gums were flaming red. She was in my office for her routine annual wellness visit and the only concern her owner had was that Taffy's breath was, well, awful.

"Yes, Mrs. Milton, brushing her teeth will really help her in the future. But right now we need to get her in for a dental cleaning right away."

Most people know that a routine annual teeth cleaning (called a prophylaxis or prophy) is necessary for their own health but many don't realize the same is true of FiFi, Spot, and Garfield. Up to 85% of pets have dental disease by the time they're three years of age. And dental disease can contribute to other severe health problems including infection (in the mouth or body), pain, and bone loss from the jaw, even resulting in fractures.

February is Pet Dental Health Month, so you may have heard from your veterinarian that your own pet's due for his or her dental prophy. Heed your veterinarian's advice because, as I told Mrs. Milton, routine dental care is critical to our animals' health. Also, regular dental prophies can help our pets keep their teeth (and help us enjoy their kisses) for their entire lives. You'd be amazed how many animals lose teeth by the time they're seniors because they didn't have the dental care they needed when they were younger. Some dogs (my own included) need to start having regular professional dental prophies by the time they're one year of age!

A dental prophy for your dog or cat involves the same scaling and polishing that we experience at our own dentists. The only difference is that our pets need to be anesthetized to allow a proper cleaning. It's a simple procedure if done regularly.

Back to brushing: if you brush your dog's (or, yes, cat's) teeth at least every other day, it will really help cut down on the degree of dental disease she's prone to developing. It may also decrease the frequency with which she needs her dental cleanings. I have one client whose lovely Yorkshire terrier needed dental care every 4 months. With routine brushing, she was able to increase the time between dental cleanings to once yearly.

But I have to agree with Mrs. Milton, brushing is not always so easy. There are some good resources to help you teach your companion to at least tolerate (if not exactly enjoy) the experience. Check out for a video on how to teach this to your dog or cat.

This article from,, is also quite helpful.

A word of advice -- get a delicious chicken- or beef-flavored pet toothpaste for your pet. Most of them don't care for the strong minty taste of human toothpastes any more than you or I would enjoy their chicken-flavored one!

For more information (and photos with a certain "wow" factor) visit For photos with an even higher "ick!" factor, check out,

If tooth brushing is just out of the question for your companion, consider specialized dental chews or treats that help clean the teeth through mechanical or enzymatic action or prevent tartar build up. This link provides a list of the Veterinary Oral Health Council's approved products: